Halloween is scary — apparently. From every corner of digital Christendom is sounding the quaking alarm that participation in Halloween is tantamount to inviting the devil into your house. Hearsay about pagan origins and evil practices abounds. Even cooler-headed writers skeptical of the dubious beginnings of trick-or-treating and jack-o-lanterns warn that the overall character of Halloween is unprofitable at best and harmful at worst. But there’s a countering voice among Christians (and among people of other religions or none) that Halloween is totally innocent fun, that it’s inconsequential, vacant amusement. I personally think Halloween may be more complex and interesting than either of those positions makes it out to be.
One level-headed article this year observes that the problem with talking about Halloween is that there are different Halloweens. There’s the fairly standardized version, where red-blooded Americans walk their costumed children from one brightly lit, pumpkin-decked, cobwebbed house to the next, collecting handfuls of candy from smiling neighbors. There’s a version where grown-ups awkwardly try to get in on the fun by throwing costume parties for themselves, often in costumes that are highly ironic (characteristic of my generation), over-sexualized, or absurdly gory. There is also, however, a darker version where some people make use of the night for mischief, grim rituals, and actual seancing and conjuring. I think it’s clear that Christians should have a strongly negative view of black magic and spiritualism. But are the other versions of Halloween just softer versions of what is, at its core, an evil holiday?
I suppose it’s worth looking briefly at the somewhat fuzzy origins of Halloween. Its name and date are easy enough: “Hallowe’en” means “Hallows’ eve” and is the vigil of (or evening before) “All Hallows’ Day”, better known as “All Saints’ Day” on November 1. All Saints’ Day is, of course, a Christian holiday commemorating all the Saints, known and unknown, who are the models of Christ-likeness and union with God. Apart from observing the liturgical Vigil of All Saints’ Day (as there’s a liturgical vigil for every major feast day), there wasn’t really an observance in the Church of “Hallowe’en” as a distinct day. Among the ancient Celts, however, there was a “day of the dead” on October 31 called Samhain. With the coming of Christianity to the pagan Celts, the felicitous proximity of Samhain to the Roman instituted All Saints’ Day on November 1 and later All Souls’ Day on November 2 seems to have created a natural cognitive (and spiritual) connection, sometimes collectively referred to as Hallowtide.
Back when the Church calendar was intimately interwoven into the culture and lifestyle of Western civilization, feast days and their vigils were big deals. Commerce would stop, whole villages and towns would throw parties, church bells would ring out across the countryside, and peculiar traditions would often develop (like decorating trees at Christmas, blessing candles at The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, and dying eggs at Easter). There was already the notion of the thinning of the veil between the visible world and the invisible world on October 31 for the Celts, and this notion was retained when the people converted to Christianity and acknowledged the Saints and all the departed on the following feast days.
This holistic tying of cult to culture which applied to those Christians and to their Celtic predecessors alike also applied to all of human history until our modern Western time. For most of the world, faith and life have been closely connected on a societal level. Something else most cults and cultures share in common with those Celts is their own “day of the dead”, where their ancestors are specially remembered, where spirits are said to walk the earth again for a night, and where traditions of either welcoming or warding off the the spirits would take place.
Though there will obviously be differences in the ancient Celtic Samhain, the Chinese Quingming, and the old Roman Lemuria, the similarities are more striking. The fact that festivals for the dead were independently developed by sundry cultures around the world says something about our shared human condition. And the curious combination of honoring ancestors while warding off maleficent or bothersome ghosts at the same time is telling. This halting veneration demonstrates that the reality of human death is murky, obscure, and uncertain. But death is inevitable, and during these festivals it is often confronted by visiting graves, telling ghost stories, and dressing up as ghosts or skeletons. There’s often even an element of humor amidst the unease, as the whole gamut of human emotion finds a place in the looming shadow of our own mortality.
In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis observes that the evidence for our uneasy relationship with our own mortal nature can be seen in two facts: a) that we make coarse jokes about ourselves, and b) that we find the dead to be uncanny.
“The coarse joke proclaims that we have here an animal which finds its own animality either objectionable or funny. Unless there had been a quarrel between the spirit and the organism, I do not see how this could be. It is the very mark of the two not being ‘at home’ together. But it is very difficult to imagine such a state of affairs as original, to suppose a creature which, from the very first, was half shocked and half tickled to death at the mere fact of being the creature it is. I do not perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs; I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels.
Our feeling about the dead is equally odd. It is idle to say that we dislike corpses because we are afraid of ghosts. You might say with equal truth that we fear ghosts because we dislike corpses, for the ghost owes much of its horror to the associated ideas of pallor, decay, coffins, shrouds, and worms. In reality, we hate the division which makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost. Because the thing ought not to be divided, each of the halves into which it falls by division is detestable.”
In fact what he’s saying is that our current detestable position is because of our “fall” from the nature that was intended for us. The whole human being, formed from the stuff of the cosmos and endowed with soul, was made unique among all the creatures in both heaven and earth. But death entered our nature, not as a punishment for sin but as the ontological consequence of it, and we’ve been maladjusted ever since. We age, fall victim to illness, and are ruptured into two pitiable horrors: a corpse and a ghost, neither of which are appropriate to something made in the image of God. And we’ve been making coarse jokes about our condition, shuddering at dead bodies and their wandering ghosts, and inventing festivals of the dead ever since. That’s not ideal, but that’s been the reality. Returning to the question about the appropriateness of Halloween, Lewis again can be helpful:
“I ought perhaps to point out that the argument is not in the least affected by the value judgments about ghost stories or coarse humor. You may hold that both are bad. You may hold that both – though they result, like clothes, from the fall – are, like clothes, the proper way to deal with the fall once it has occurred. That when perfected and recreated, man will no longer experience that kind of laughter or that kind of shudder. Yet here and now, not to feel the horror and not to see the joke is to be less than human. But either way, the facts bear witness to our present maladjustment.”
Like clothes after the fall, I think festivals of the dead are part of the way humanity has had to deal with the fall and our struggle with mortality. But something else has dealt with the fall, something far more profound and efficacious, namely the incarnation of God. The Word of God united himself to humanity by putting on a body and a soul, uniting the two in perfect harmony, and even defeating death, the enemy that had up to that point always split them. Orthodox Christian theology affirms that human beings can ontologically partake of the perfected Christ-life and “put to death the death in our members”, leaving behind corpses less prone to decay and souls less shadowy and more solid in preparation for the resurrection. Nevertheless, corpses and ghosts we will still become until the Day of radical recreation is realized.
My point in acknowledging the universal human impulse to observe “days of the dead” is that they remind us of and consciously connect us to our common infirmity known as mortality. The difference for Christians is that we have an answer to that problem; we do not “mourn as those who have no hope.” But not to mourn at all, not to feel the horror and not to see the joke is to be less than human. And make no mistake, we’re increasingly surrounded by those who don’t get it. Serious people are publishing in serious scientific journals serious research suggesting that in time, with the proper technique, humans will be able to stop aging, conquer all diseases, and live forever. In the ultimate Promethean smash-and-grab, man will swipe the immortal fruit off the Tree of Life from which he was barred so long ago and dance irreverently down the corridors of eternity. Ignoring the pitchfork-wielding mob of theists, philosophers, and other obscurantists, our scientists will happily ignore even the warning of their colleague Dr. Frankenstein, assured that their superior technique will produce no monsters. (Did you know that the full title of Mary Shelly’s book is ‘Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus’?).
At least on Halloween we know to call a monster a monster. Something of an increasingly invisible reality in the world is made a little more clear on this one spooky night of the year. As I took an evening stroll around my neighborhood tonight and enjoyed all the decorated yards, the world did seem more numinous, just a little more haunted. In a world of iPhones, CNN, free 2-day shipping, and celebrity gossip, slowing to a trick-or-treating pace and feeling a little uneasy before the eerie unknown may just restore us to a level of sanity and wakefulness that we hadn’t realized we were missing. With a renewed awareness, under the weight of the inevitability of death, we may just experience the paradoxical levity of knowing there’s nothing we can do about it on our own. We may see the joke. But then, neither do we have to laugh as those who have no hope.